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Worth the Wait by Lori Foster (1)

8

VIOLET HADN’T SLEPT as soundly as Hogan predicted she would. How could she when she kept thinking about him “taking care of himself”? Oh, how she’d love to watch. Until he’d said it, though, she’d never much thought about a man doing that. When she fantasized, and of course she did, it was about her playing an active role with a man, not a man on his own.

Hogan had added all kinds of new dimensions to her fantasies, and he definitely had the starring role.

She really wanted to talk to him about it, to do more of that incredible sexual teasing and touching—she could barely think of anything else—but just as she’d predicted, the weekend was a madhouse. A wonderful, insane, nonstop madhouse, and she loved it.

The place stayed so packed, she didn’t get a chance to talk to Hogan alone Friday night or most of the day Saturday. He’d no sooner set up the grills than customers surrounded him in the outdoor area. Other than idle chitchat and a few long looks, they’d been forced to behave.

Around eight on Saturday, Nathan showed up and joined a woman new to the area. Fascinating. Violet found herself wondering about Nathan “taking care of himself.” Then she wondered about Jason, too. She glanced around at all the different customers, better than half of them male, and given the train of her thoughts, she felt like a pervert. Of course she’d known they did that; she knew everyone did it. She was a normal adult and she wasn’t stupid. But she’d never specifically thought about it.

Good grief, Hogan had rotted her brain. She bit her lip, but still laughed.

Around eight thirty, she finally caught time for a break. She grabbed a cold tea, a salad and the latest Trickle, which was now days old. Colt had left a copy of the paper in her office, but she hadn’t yet had a chance to read it. Maybe catching up on neighborhood news would get her brain out of the gutter.

She took an empty stool at the counter and dug in, both to the food and the news.

She read about the passing of Mrs. Berger, a very sweet ninety-year-old woman whose niece brought her to the diner once a month for dinner. Since Violet hadn’t read the paper, she hadn’t known about her passing. Already she’d missed the funeral. Feeling terrible for the niece, she made a mental note to send her flowers and a card.

She also read about a new science class offered to grade school children at the local college. Nice. It sounded messy and fun and kids would probably love that.

A nearby boutique, one of her favorites when she splurged, which wasn’t often, had a terrific sale going on for a few more days. And at the beginning of the month, the flower shop would offer a free carnation to the mothers of active military, just as a thank-you to those who served.

She skimmed through the rest of the news on neighbors and businesses, and finally, with her salad almost gone, she went to the advice column that grew ever more popular every day.

Some weeks there was only one question answered, and others there were two or three. The first one this time was about a neighbor who cut his grass too late in the evening. The noise coming through the open windows, the complainer said, made it impossible to hear her evening shows.

The advice was to politely talk to the neighbor first, to explain that it was disruptive. If that didn’t work, close the windows and turn on the air-conditioning.

Violet grinned. Good common sense, but nothing fun until she read on to the next request for advice. As she took in the words, her eyes widened.

Good God, it was about Nathan, and it was delicious.

A hand touched her shoulder and she jumped a good foot, feeling both guilty for what she’d read and titillated by it.

Twisting, Violet found Hogan standing there, one brow up, a half smile in place. She pressed a hand over her pounding heart. “You just took a year off my life.”

His gaze went over her face in an intimate, affectionate way. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Are you on break?” she asked at almost the same time.

“Sort of. I came in to get food, but I can take it back out with me. Colt is watching the grills for me until then.”

Her eyes widened. Colt, his son. Of course. Mentally jumping ahead, she said, “He’d make the perfect apprentice.”

“No.”

“You are the most stubborn man.” Gorgeous, too. His jeans weren’t tight, but they did fit his tight butt and muscular thighs. His T-shirt stretched over those beautiful broad shoulders, then fell loose over his flat stomach. Now, after what he’d done to her, she looked at him differently.

She wasn’t sure she could ever look at him the same again.

Seeing her scrutiny, Hogan’s brow went a little higher. “I was going to ask you about seeing the upstairs, but now you’ve got me interested.” He peered over her shoulder at the paper she’d spread out on the bar. “Reading gossip again, huh?”

“Yes.” Grinning, Violet snatched up the paper, grabbed Hogan’s hand and dragged him down the hall.

“Uh...where are we going?”

“My office.”

“Seriously, honey, I only have five minutes.”

Violet choked. Oh, what she’d give for ten more minutes. “I want privacy enough to tell you something, that’s all.”

“Okay, but people are watching us go.”

She glanced back, and sure enough, half the customers and all the employees made note of them holding hands. Violet rolled her eyes. “Let them wonder. It’ll keep ’em sharp.”

“Hold up.” He yelled back to the cook, “Put together a loaded burger for me, will you? I’ll be back in one minute.”

Jerry, the cook, gave an absent wave while juggling three things on his griddle.

“One minute, huh? Well, that ought to kill any thoughts of us doing anything.”

Near her ear, Hogan said, “In one minute, I could be kissing you with my hand inside your shirt, or maybe in your shorts—”

“Don’t!” She dragged him into the office and closed the door. “I finally got my brain on something else, so don’t get me thinking about that again.”

He gave her a long, heated look. “So you’ve been thinking about it?” His gaze moved over her. “About me?”

He honestly had to ask? “That’s rhetorical, right? After what we did? How easy it was for you? Yes, I’ve thought about it, and you, a lot.”

He smiled. “I’m glad I made an impression.”

Oh, he’d made an impression all right.

“Come to any conclusions?”

Definitely. But saying so right now might scare him off. Her personal interest in him as a man wasn’t the only factor to consider.

She also needed his expertise with ribs and restaurant planning. She wanted Hogan in her bed—and she wanted him to work full-time for her.

Frowning at him and her own mercenary thoughts, Violet put some distance between them, then snapped open the Trickle. “Listen to this.” She read aloud.

Dear Advice Anonymous,

What’s the best way to get the attention of a sexy, sandy-haired, green-eyed alpha without seeming too forward? Between his work in law enforcement and performing with the band, he almost never dates. I can’t get him to look at me twice, so I need a subtle way to get his attention. Advice?

Signed, “Hungry for a Hottie.”

She looked up to see that Hogan was as astounded as her. Satisfied with his reaction, she said, “That’s Nathan, right? I mean, it has to be.”

“Sounds like him. Who else around here is in law enforcement and in the band?”

“And a hottie.”

Hogan’s eyes narrowed.

“No one that I know of.” She grinned, knowing she’d tweaked him. “Want to hear the reply?”

“Yeah.” Hogan came to stand next to her, again reading over her shoulder. “I do.”

Already his body heat touched her, and she could smell his sun-warmed skin and hair. Violet cleared her throat.

Dear Hungry,

Perhaps the gentleman doesn’t deserve your attention. From what you’ve said, he’s probably arrogant and cocky, well aware of his hero status to the community and his own good looks. I suggest you try ignoring him. Men like him feed off attention and if you deny it, he’ll begin to seek it out.

Also, it’s possible he’s not into women.

My best,

Advice Anonymous.

Violet glanced up at Hogan. His mouth was right there, so close. She thought of his mouth, what he’d done to her, what else she’d like him to do—

“Holy shit.” Oblivious to her sexual musings, Hogan laughed but quickly cut it short, almost in sympathy for a friend. As he stepped back, he said, “Nathan’s going to lose it.”

Half her brain remained on the idea of kissing him, but the other half caught his statement. “Who do you think the woman is?”

“The gossip columnist?”

She waved a hand. “No, the one who’s after Nathan.”

Hogan shrugged, his expression thoughtful. “He’s out there right now with that new neighbor of his. She’d seemed pretty resistant the first time I met her, but who knows with women? Looks like she’s being friendly enough with him now, so maybe she already got her wish.”

“I saw them sitting off alone.”

“Yeah. She got here before him and took the farthest table away. When he got here a few minutes after her, Nathan barely said hello, he was in such a hurry to join her.” Hogan gave an evil grin and snatched the paper from her. “I think I’ll go share this with him. See what he says.”

So much for sympathy. “Wait.” Violet grinned. “I’m coming with you.”

On his way out, Hogan grabbed his hamburger and some chips, and Violet got him an iced tea.

“Before I forget,” he said, “I talked to Colt about the ideas you had.”

Violet frowned at his back. “I was going to do that.” She’d looked forward to it, damn it. New ideas excited her, and like a kid with a new present, she wanted to untie the ribbon and pull back the paper herself.

“He’s my son.”

He had a point, but still... “You’re trying to take over.”

Hogan paused, and Violet almost ran into him. He turned to face her.

She waited for him to apologize.

Instead, he said, “When we close up tonight, how about you show me the upstairs?”

Pasting on a sassy smile, she asked, “Is that a euphemism for something?”

His white teeth flashed at her. “You really are focused on sex today, aren’t you?”

Yes, damn him.

He actually laughed. “I meant that I wanted to see the upper floor.”

Disgruntled, Violet shrugged. “There’s nothing much up there.”

“I’d like to see for myself. Colt thinks it might work for parties.”

Parties? Hmm... “It’s just storage.”

“Storage can become usable space.” He started on his way again.

Definitely trying to take over, Violet thought with a frown. She’d show him the upper floor, no problem, and maybe while she had him alone, she could engage him in an encore. A tug of warmth low in her belly made her breathing quicken.

Keeping her voice low, Violet asked him, “Have you thought about me?”

“I’m alive, aren’t I?”

That sultry reply came with no hesitation and made her feel better. “Did you...you know. Take care of yourself?”

Hogan laughed again, but didn’t reply as they stepped through the prep area and then outside.

A wave of heat slapped her in the face. “This humidity is killer.” And of course, his grills were directly in the sun, not a bit of shade reaching far enough to offer any relief. A canopy of some kind would have to be a priority. Guilt made her frown. “I’m sorry, Hogan.”

“For prying?” He smiled as he asked it, then whispered, “I don’t mind, especially since I told you what I’d do.”

So he had... Violet’s knees weakened, and she had to shake her head. “No,” she said, her voice thin and a little too breathy. “I meant for keeping you out here broiling in this awful heat.” It was early evening, but probably still hovered near ninety. The sun stayed high in the sky, a bright yellow ball in a pure blue, cloudless sky.

She looked away from Hogan’s piercing gaze to the surrounding seating. Not more than four feet away, tall trees cast long shadows. “Feels like it’s gotten hotter as the day went on, instead of cooling.” At least the various picnic tables were nestled under long-branched trees, the harsh sunlight dappled by the leaves. Those that weren’t under trees had broad umbrellas. She saw that despite the sweltering day, every seat was taken. She needed more.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hogan said. “It’s just the angle of the sun as it sets that makes it seem so bad.” He paused to check on the grills, spoke briefly with Colt and then continued on.

As Violet passed Colt, she said near his ear, “Think you could do this? I mean, if I got your dad to share the recipe?”

“I already know it.” Colt chuckled at her shock. “And yeah, I can handle it. But Dad would have to agree.”

Just then, “Dad” snagged her arm and dragged her along with him. Taken by surprise, Violet almost tripped over a tree root. “Hey.”

He righted her, helped her past a picnic table filled with a rowdy family that included four kids, then said, “Don’t try bribing my son.”

“Bribing?” Violet imbued as much umbrage into her tone as she could, but damn, she had hoped to bribe him. “I only asked him if he knew—”

“And then you were going to work on him.” Hogan gave her a look. “Colt puts in enough hours as it is. I don’t want him losing even more free time.”

“We could just shift the hours he has. Shoot, he could possibly work less hours if he filled in for you sometimes instead of all the other stuff he does.”

Hogan took a big bite of his burger, chewed while looking at her, then swallowed. “I’ll think about it.”

He acted so autocratic, Violet wanted to trip him, but they were already too near to where Nathan and the woman sat opposite each other at a picnic table.

The area was very green, the grass thick and soft. Leaves shifted overhead, and a butterfly played around the end of the table. The scents of food and summer hung in the air.

And it was all hers. Sometimes, pride made her want to burst.

“I’m still the boss,” Violet reminded Hogan, low enough that no one else would hear, but the way Nathan grinned at her as he stood, she wasn’t sure.

As if seeking patience, Hogan looked up at the sky for a count of three before giving his attention to his friend. A devilish smile split his face. “Nathan, how’s it going?”

Nathan eyed him. “What are you up to?”

When Hogan just stood there, eating his hamburger and trying to look innocent, Violet stepped forward. “Nathan, introduce me to your friend.” She put on her most engaging smile.

“Sure.” Nathan gestured between them. “Brooklin, this is Violet Shaw, the owner and the brains behind the excellent food and service. Violet, my new neighbor, Brooklin Sweet.”

The very pretty woman seemed hesitant. Then she returned Violet’s smile and offered her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Violet. Nathan isn’t exaggerating about the food, or the service. I can see why your diner is so popular.”

“Thank you.” Oh, Violet thought, I like her. “This is Hogan Guthrie, my barbecue master. Have you tried his ribs yet?”

“I need that on a shirt,” Hogan said. “Barbecue Master. It has a nice ring to it.”

Nathan rolled his eyes.

“We met the other day,” Brooklin said, nodding to him.

“I’m glad you remember.” Hogan tapped the rolled-up paper against his thigh. To Violet, he said, “She’s a salad eater, but I won’t hold that against her. Nathan ate enough ribs for the two of them.”

“I tried a bite of his,” Brooklin said, “and it really was delicious.”

Pleased with that praise, Hogan said, “Thank you.”

“She’s a health nut or something,” Nathan teased. “Jogs every day and eats a lot of rabbit food.”

“How do you know she jogs?” Violet asked.

“Because I jog with her.” He bobbed his eyebrows.

“I used to be a nurse,” Brooklin said, moving past Nathan’s innuendos very quickly. “Being healthy has become a habit.”

Pretending shock, a hand to his heart, Nathan sagged against the table. “You just offered that up. They didn’t even have to pry it out of you.”

She ignored him to talk to Violet. “How did the diner get its name? Screwy Louie’s is pretty different. Fun and unique, but different for sure.”

Violet took the seat opposite her, nudging Nathan out of the way. “My great-uncle had a hand in raising me. Uncle Bibb—a nickname for Billy—named the diner after his longtime military friend, Louie, because he said Louie was the one who inspired him. Uncle Bibb loved him like a brother. I inherited the diner when my uncle passed away.”

Hogan stared at her. “You never told me any of that.”

Violet ignored him. “For the longest time, I didn’t want to change anything, you know? There are so many nice memories wrapped up in this place. Changing anything felt like losing a part of Uncle Bibb.”

Hogan sat down beside her, consternation on his face, his food almost forgotten.

“But it’s time to update,” she said, hoping to put Hogan at ease. “More than anything, Uncle Bibb wanted the place to thrive and that requires change.” She shoulder-bumped Hogan. “Even the record keeping was ancient. But now that my uncle’s bookkeeper isn’t with me anymore, Hogan has everything modernized. It’s been an amazing switch.”

Brooklin smiled at Hogan. “A man of many talents.”

“That’s exactly what I told him!”

Hogan leaned close to her ear. “That could go on the shirt, too.”

Violet stole one of his chips, saying, “You better eat up while you can. Colt can only man the grills so long.”

Hogan frowned and dug in.

With the two of them now taking up Nathan’s seat, he moved to sit next to Brooklin instead of across from her.

Violet knew Nathan well, and she saw that he was more than casually interested. The poor man could barely take his gaze off Brooklin. Violet could see why. Brooklin had beautiful hair; a slim, toned body; and a very pretty face with a full mouth, narrow nose and the most unusual eyes she’d ever seen. “You said you used to be a nurse. What is it you do now?”

“Total career change, opposite side of the spectrum.” Brooklin half laughed. “I make custom jewelry.”

“Wow, really?” Violet said.

Nathan’s brows went up. Then naturally he looked at her hands and throat.

She laughed. “Everyone expects me to wear my own stuff, but I only do when dressing up. Like Nathan said, I run every morning, and after that I work at home. I changed one of my bedrooms into a studio and I keep all my supplies there, along with a big desk and comfortable chair. Seems silly to put on nice jewelry for that, you know? But I have a website if you’re curious.”

“I am, yes.”

Brooklin dug a business card from her purse.

Nathan stared as she handed it over and Violet knew before a day passed, he’d ask her for the website url. Hiding her amusement, she asked, “What type of stuff do you make?”

“Mostly I like working with sunstone and amber, tourmaline and raw gemstones, like citrine, garnet and amethyst. Customers can have their pick of the metal and the stone, and then I create it either with or without their suggestions.”

Nathan watched her, riveted by her every word, but Hogan only finished eating, the paper beside him.

“You sell online?” Violet asked.

“I do. But some of my pieces are also sold through various kitschy shops, like that little boutique near here.”

Violet gasped. “I love that boutique! They’re having a sale soon. Will your jewelry be included?”

Brooklin nodded. “I agreed to twenty percent off.”

“I don’t freaking believe this,” Nathan grumbled. “How many times have I tried to get a single bit of info out of you, and you acted like I was plowing through your privacy.”

“You,” she said, “had different motives.”

He threw up his hands. “How do you know Violet’s motives aren’t the same?” Soon as he said it, he shook his head. “Never mind.”

Violet laughed. Nathan clearly wanted something altogether different than mere friendship.

Now that he’d finished eating, Hogan started grinning again. “Read the Trickle lately, Nathan?”

Distracted, Nathan glanced at him and snorted. “No.” He realized Hogan had the paper with him, and he saw the page he’d opened it to. “God help me. Are you into that stupid advice column now, too?”

“Not usually, no. But Violet pointed out that the person mentioned last week sounded familiar.”

Without much interest, still scowling at Brooklin, he said, “Yeah? Who is it?”

Hogan spun the paper around in front of him. “Maybe you should read it.”

Suspicious now, Nathan put a forearm on the table and leaned forward to read.

Because Violet could barely take her attention off Brooklin’s very light brown eyes, she noticed the way the other woman quickly looked away, along with her small smile. So maybe she was the “hooked on a hottie” local.

Nathan didn’t give Hogan the reaction he wanted. Instead he laughed.

Nonplussed, Hogan asked, “You think it’s funny?”

“You don’t?”

“You read all of it, right?”

“Yeah.” Nathan turned to Brooklin. “For the record, I’m definitely into women.”

“Good to know,” she murmured.

Fascinated with their byplay, Violet asked, “Any idea who it might be?”

“Probably a joke. You both know Stan is gay.” Again, he turned to Brooklin. “He’s the drummer for the band. He hit on me when I first got to town. I explained I was straight, so he asked me to join the band instead. He’s a good guy, but a real comedian. Smart, too. I wouldn’t put it past him to be the voice behind the ‘Advice Anonymous.’”

“The person admiring you,” Violet pointed out, “isn’t Stan, though, right? So who is?”

“No idea.” Nathan stretched, not in the least concerned.

“Anyone been flirting with you?” Hogan asked.

“Sure.” He shrugged. “It happens.” He leveled a look on Hogan. “You know it as well as I do.”

Hogan smiled.

“Oh my God,” Violet complained in a long, drawn-out way as if pained. “You’re both insufferable.”

“Not me,” said Nathan. “I can’t help it if women and men alike are attracted to me.”

Brooklin narrowed her eyes at him. “I thought you said it was a joke?”

“The column is, for sure. The rest? Who knows.”

Propping her chin in a fist, Brooklin stared at him. “So you don’t put any credence in the column?”

Nathan barked a laugh. “No. Who would?”

“A lot of people, apparently.”

“Right. You know, I hope it is Stan writing the column. It’ll give me ammunition to harass him for a year. I just hope the person writing about me isn’t old Mrs. Carlton.” He shivered. “She’s eighty, only wears her dentures half the time and always wants to pet on me whenever she gets close.”

Brooklin cracked a reluctant smile. “I hope you’re kind to her.”

“Me, kind?”

Violet laughed. “He is very kind, always.”

“It’s not easy,” Nathan insisted. “Kindness encourages her. I have to struggle for that right balance of authoritative figure and friendly neighbor.”

“That’s probably the lure, though,” Violet said. “Women love an authoritative guy, especially in uniform.” She gave a deliberate shiver.

“Some women maybe,” Brooklin said. “Not all.”

Nathan grinned at Hogan. “Looks like you really need that shirt, pal. Maybe it could pass as a uni.”

“Probably depends on what I wear, or don’t wear, with it.”

Knowing her face was now hot, Violet stood. “I need to get back to work, but, Brooklin, I’ll definitely look you up. Thanks for the card.”

“Thank you for the wonderful meal. I hope I’ll be seeing you around.”

“I’m always here, so I’m sure you will.” She looked expectantly at Hogan. “Well? Are you done?”

Doing his best to look like a martyr, Hogan followed along, groaning, “Sometimes, the boss is so damn bossy.”

* * *

Hogan looked around the upper floor with keen interest. Dust motes floated in the air, visible beneath a bare flickering bulb. It was warmer up here, almost stifling. He saw air ducts but assumed they were closed, likely to save on the bills.

The finished ceiling slanted with the roof, but was plenty tall enough in the center. If they moved out all the boxes and junk, seating could go along the walls under the windows.

Lots and lots of windows. Ratty blinds covered them, but he’d already checked and they seemed solid, in good shape. Filthy, but then, no reason to clean this part of the place.

It wouldn’t take a lot to refinish the floor. A sander, some polish.

Aware of Violet watching him, he walked from one side to the other, determining when the roof got too low. Yes, more than enough room.

Overall, the area needed a good cleaning, paint, some fresh lighting, but it could add an all-new facet to the business. If they did the work themselves, the cost would be minimal in comparison to the probable income.

“What are you thinking?” Violet asked.

“What a great area this could be.”

“Really?” She peered around as if she didn’t see it.

“Come here.” He reached out a hand, and when she took it, he led her to a big box of old pots and pans that he’d shoved toward the window. “Sit there and imagine everything clean, some nice lights. Pretend you’re on a date with a high school sweetheart, and you’re getting ready to dance.”

Laughing, she said, “That’d be tough to do. I didn’t attend many dances in school.”

Sitting there like that, she looked sweet and young and far too enticing. “No?”

She shook her head. “I worked with Uncle Bibb.”

Hogan thought about what she’d said to Brooklin, a past he’d known nothing about, and instead of going over the imagined floor plan, he came to stand in front of her. “When did your parents die?”

“My sophomore year.” She turned her face up to his, her blue eyes large in the dim light. “A stupid house fire. They weren’t burned. But by the time the firemen found them, they’d died of smoke inhalation.”

“What caused the fire?”

“Faulty Christmas lights.”

Though she’d told it without much emotion, Hogan hurt for her. He took in her straight but fragile shoulders, shoulders that had carried a very big burden—and turned it into a successful business.

She’d caught her mass of fiery hair in a messy ponytail and somehow, even that made her look vulnerable.

Or maybe it was his own perspective that brought about those feelings.

He knelt in front of her. “Where were you when it happened?”

She half smiled, her gaze slipping away from his to look around the room. “Uncle Bibb had taken me to a Christmas play downtown, then out to dinner. We got home really late.”

More than anything, Hogan wanted to hold her, but he didn’t trust himself, knowing that once he got his hands on her he wouldn’t want to let go. Not until he’d crossed every line that existed. Besides, the hurt was years old now—it had to be.

“I remember,” she whispered, “being lost, you know?”

“Yes.” He knew very well.

“Uncle Bibb didn’t let that last very long. He took me home with him and said I’d live there and we’d work out everything else. It was awful, losing them so suddenly like that, but he made it better as much as he could. He kept me busy, giving me chores at home and a job at the diner. He talked to me nonstop and...just filled the silence so I couldn’t dwell on it too much.”

Had he given her time to grieve? Probably, he thought, when she should have been sleeping. He knew that was the time memories crawled in on him. Memories, regrets and anger. “We don’t have to change anything.”

The half smile widened until she had dimples in her cheeks. “You’re sweet, you know that? But honestly, Hogan, Uncle Bibb talked a lot about using the space up here. He never got around to it, but I remember sitting with him on the front porch, snapping green beans and listening to him make plans. Back then, he wanted to use this area to host private dinners, like for a birthday party or anniversary. But if he was here, still, I know he’d love the idea of doing stuff with the high school.”

The picture she painted, of an older man and a young girl, sitting on a porch, breaking beans and dreaming of the future, was a nice image. He wished he could have met her uncle. “The house you’re in now, it used to be his?”

She nodded. “Everything I have is because of Uncle Bibb.”

“Not true.” He stood again, but brought her up with him. “I can’t think of anyone who works any harder than you.”

She twisted her mouth to the side. “You can’t, huh? What about you? Shoot, what about Colt? Between the three of us, there’s a lot of hard work and long hours going on.”

The three of us.

His heart lurched and his brain shied away from the implication of grouping them together that way. He released her and turned, pretending to study the layout again while he quieted his unease.

As if she belonged there, Violet stepped up to his side. “I worry about Colt, too, you know.” She also stared out at the floor, at the dust and grime and so many boxes. “He and I were talking the other day. He’s a straight-A student.”

“Yeah. I often wonder how I got so damn lucky.”

“Good genes,” she teased, and then more seriously, “plus good parenting.”

Hogan shook his head. He’d screwed up several times in the parenting department. Luckily Colt wasn’t the type to rebel or act out. No, he just got better, more damned perfect.

At some point, that high standard had to break.

“He’d asked me about more hours,” Violet said softly.

“What?” Startled from his thoughts, Hogan scowled. “He already works too much. I’ve tried to tell him—”

She rested a hand on his arm. “He loves you. And he wants to go to college.” Her blue eyes locked in understanding with his. “I think he’s looking for a way to pay for it.”

“Yeah.” Hogan stepped away from her hand, because seriously, even that simple touch pushed him. Then he ran a hand through his hair. “He has the grades and the drive to go to the best schools, but—”

“But it’s not feasible. He understands that.”

“He shouldn’t have to.”

In that familiar, playful way of hers, Violet shouldered him. “No, he shouldn’t. Colt is a great kid who deserves the best of everything. But kids are resourceful and adaptable, and if anyone can handle reality, he can. Besides, in the big scheme of things, he has everything he really needs, which is mainly a father who loves him like crazy and is always there for him.”

Talk so personal left Hogan rigid. Any minute now she’d ask about his wife, and he didn’t want to go there. The room that had just recently felt large and full of possibilities now felt far too small and strangling. “It’s late. We can talk more about the space later.”

She looked at him, her expression quizzical and then accepting. “Sure. We’ll hash out the plans in all our free time.”

An obvious joke, given the hours they put in, and he grinned with her as they headed for the stairs. The narrow staircase was another thing that would have to be addressed. The lighting sucked and she needed a new handrail, as well as some slip-proof treads.

In his mind, he tallied the to-do list, while also thinking about working side by side with Violet. One thing for sure: she always entertained him.

She was close behind him, and halfway down she softly said his name.

Going still, Hogan glanced back at her.

She gave him a wistful smile. “Two weeks is going to feel like forever.”